Lessons Disney Taught Me

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I was not born silent, but I came to be that way.

When I was young, my favorite movie was The Little Mermaid. I insisted on being Ariel for Halloween, played mermaids with friends, and watched the movie over and over again (probably to the point of nauseum). I never questioned the subliminal messages that perculated into my subconscious as a result of my role model.

Ariel taught me important lessons about silence and identity. On some level, I came to see that perhaps who and where I am aren’t good enough. In fact, in a quest for the unknown promises of freedom, I might have to give up my biggest gifts– my passion in life, and most importantly, myself, or at least my state of being and relating in the world. I might be rescued off the beach by my soul mate without having any reciprocal communication. The fact that, “I want more,” could lead me to drastically change my physical state and expunge my previous existence in pursuit of a new self that means giving up who I am. I learned that I would find happiness in silence and sacrifice. I could get anything I wanted… as long as I sold myself in the process.

I never questioned the story, but I learned. Over the years, I started talking less and less. I cannot blame Disney for my silence. I cannot blame my females who chose to defer to powerful men and culturally-accepted social hierarchy rather than their own feelings. However, this culture that socializes every child to the point of gluttony and extreme excess certainly reinforced established patterns or made things worse.

It was not Disney that was the problem in my life. My idolization of Ariel was a symptom of something that became much more profound: I felt like my voice didn’t matter, and there was something wrong with who I was.

After years of struggling with my identity, I came to see how I did not come to exist scared and voiceless out of a vacuum. There were factors– a lot of them– I started addressing that were part of the problem. In order to move forward with my life, I was going to have to start thinking differently.

Disney hadn’t even gone through my mind until a few years ago, a Little Mermaid ride opened up at Disneyland. After going on it for the first time, I was disgusted… or perhaps more like repulsed by Disneyland’s depiction of Ariel. Ariel looked like she was struggling with anorexia, and her ghost-like figure looked all of 10 years old.

I saw Ariel differently that day. She was not just a carefree mermaid who wanted to be free anymore. She was a Disney product– a doll modified to meet standardized cultural ideals. Even in that form, she was small and silenced. I was haunted by her emaciated form. At Disneyland, I had this urge, a) to call whoever created this ride and yell at them and b) to re-consider what I once valued as worthy of idolization. Ariel was not as ambitious, spunky, or musical as I remembered her as a child. She was muted and sad. It was heartbreaking to see the tattered aftermath of a character I once wanted to be; to envision how this character affected me and how my perspective had so drastically changed.

I am reminded of myself when I see children partaking in everything related to Disney princesses (aka Disney crack/ brilliant marketing scheme). A child might light up and ask me, “Which Disney princess is your favorite?” I watch the abundance of princess costumes and know how often kids watch the movies. Then, I think of the haunting figure of Ariel at Disneyland.

How many times does a child need to watch Sleeping Beauty or Snow White or Cinderella or The Little Mermaid to conceptualize women differently? How long until that message of sleeping, submission, and inadequacy without a man penetrates so deeply that they change who they are?

In some ways, I am so encouraged by our culture and even Disney. I saw Frozen this week, and it avoids many of the pitfalls of previous Disney movies. Frozen was controversial and brought up issues that Disney has not yet brought up. A queen was crowned with no discussion of a king needing to take the throne. Characters who knew each other for a day didn’t end up married. The movie Miss Representation (which is on Netflix and worth seeing) is like a breath of fresh air, and I am so encouraged that the public is speaking out about the lack of women in power positions and the effects of the media as it pertains to the sexualization and objectification of women.

However, in other ways, I am so discouraged by things that are displayed in this video. As a culture, we have so much more work to do. Once you begin to identify sexism and advocate for gender-related issues, it is hard to go back. I can’t un-know things I know. I can’t un-feel the disgust I feel about this culture’s predominant views of women.

It is about us. It is about what we value as a culture. It is about what we, as a culture, idealize. There is a lot of discussion in the eating disorder world about making more realistically-sized Barbies. While that is well and good, it is not just about a woman’s body. It is about how children grow up understanding gender. In this era of constant media consumption, it is ignorant to think that these childhood role models and toys don’t have an effect on people. Being saturated with a certain agenda is likely to leave a stain (if not far worse). I want to be a savvy media consumer in my life as an adult, but what about young children, who are too vulnerable to know what messages inundate them?

Disney princesses sell, but at what cost? Who do we have to objectify to sell a product?

At the end of the day, the point of this post is not about Barbie, or Ken, or Disney, or any toy at all. It is not about me complaining about how Ariel was a bad influence on my life (although she was, and she’s a very questionable individual). The whole Disney princess franchise is something deeper and more political. It is about sales and sexuality. It is about media controlling the way a woman comes to understand herself.

I think of my tendency towards silence and my impulse to self-sacrifice, and I wonder if we are raising another generation of girls to struggle with the same problems.

I have no easy answers for parents who want to raise their daughters by empowering them. I am not a parent, so I don’t even want to open that can of worms. There is such a tension for parents between the child’s saturation in our culture and the desire to prevent girls from learning about gender exploitation. My interest is more in the systemic issues present in our culture so that in the future, parents won’t have to be put in such a difficult dilemma.

One female senator said the following in 2013 after being ignored: “At what point must a female senator raise her hand for her voice to be recognized over the male colleagues in the room?” She got a round of thunderous applause. That’s one step toward our gender having an equal voice.

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